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Did NSA spy on the Vatican? Should we be concerned?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 30, 2013

Did the NSA spy on the Vatican? We don’t know, really. We only have one report, published by an Italian magazine, claiming that the NSA monitored cardinals’ phone calls. The White House isn’t talking about it, and the Vatican claims to be unconcerned.

But if you are a Catholic and a US citizen, maybe you should be concerned. I am.

The report in Panorama is credible. The NSA was evidently eavesdropping on nearly everyone; it seems quite probable that cell-phone calls by Church leaders were being captured. If any sensitive information was captured, it was passed along to the political overseers of the NSA, who work for the Obama administration: an administration that rarely misses an opportunity to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, or promote the views of Catholic dissidents. It’s unsettling to think that our nation’s leaders might use espionage to influence Church policies. But it’s not far-fetched.

One reassuring note: Despite the scare headlines in the (reliably awful) British press, the NSA was not spying on the papal conclave. Maybe the cardinals’ calls were recorded before they entered the Sistine Chapel. But once they were there, in a sealed room that had been swept for electronic listening devices, the opportunities for high-tech espionage were virtually nil. There were certainly no cell-phone calls to record, because the cardinals surrendered their phones as they entered the conclave.

In fact, the complete absence of working phones in the Sistine Chapel led to one of the more intriguing sidebar stories about the conclave. Before he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s, the newly elected Pope Francis wanted to speak to his predecessor, Benedict XVI. But he couldn’t find a working line in the building, and the cardinals couldn’t leave the building until the Pope was introduced to the world. So there was a frantic scramble through unused rooms in the apostolic palace, until finally a phone was found. The story is told in A Call to Serve; my co-author, Stefan von Kempis, was there when it happened.

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